Twelve Questions: Diane Robertson

City Missioner Diane Robertson is a schoolteacher turned therapist and charity chief whose abusive childhood once made Christmas Day a nightmare. She and her staff and volunteers will make Christmas dinner for 2,500 people next week

Compassion is learned by example, says Diane Robertson. Photo / Greg Bowker
Compassion is learned by example, says Diane Robertson. Photo / Greg Bowker

1. What is the worst kind of selfishness? I don't think it's about what you decide to give or not. It's when people are judgmental about others. I get emails every day from people complaining about those we are helping. Today's one was about the people standing on Hobson St queuing for help, saying they are highly tattooed and if they can afford tattoos, then they can afford food. Or they'll say the people queuing are fat, so they don't need food they need dieticians. I always write back to them and will try to explain that the tattoos may be cultural, or not, or just talk about what those families are experiencing. Often it's about women, because it's women you'll see queuing down there. They'll describe them as lazy, fat and useless. It makes me so angry.

2. Are you ever judgmental? Oh, we all can be. Ask my children, I've probably been judgmental about their friends or partners in the past. People are judgmental about the rich as well as the poor. They'll say they're flashy and bad and corporates are all greedy. But my experience is that people are people are people.

Everyone has a story and every family has a drama. I've mixed with all sorts in my life and that makes me realise how rich every human being is. Our clients have incredibly rich stories.

3. How do you counter people's views about those in poverty? It's very difficult because it's challenging people's whole belief systems and often they aren't rational. People put them down for who they are but I'm amazed at the resilience of many of the people we see at the Mission; their ability to survive when everything seems against them. I asked the staff here about the difference between those who give to charity, and those who don't, and they all came back and said it was because their parents taught them to. You could come from a very rich environment but if the attitudes of your parents is that you should blame people, that's what you're most likely to do too.

4. When did you last cry? Recently, which is odd for me. I lost my son in the typhoon in the Philippines for 12 days. I cried bucketloads. He is at a dive school on a small island. For the first five days, we had no contact with him, then they told us he was all right. Then they said "oh no, it wasn't that James we were talking about". You're just so powerless, totally subject to other people. It was interesting because some of the embassies I spoke with were really helpful, others were quite rude. Finally after 12 days, they got communications back on the island. When I spoke to him, his response was "chill out, mum".

5. What is the biggest misconception about the homeless? That they choose to be homeless. It's like the myth about poverty that people choose to be there and choose to live in terrible surroundings and choose to have poor health and let their kids go hungry. It's a ridiculous concept. By the time people are homeless, they are so isolated from society, they're often incapable of living in rooms or managing a household. If you are homeless, it's like being a refugee who doesn't speak the right language, sitting in the middle of a city.

6. How can you fix that? It's a long process - often housing is the final piece of the puzzle. People don't become socially isolated overnight, so we try to involve them in the community. We have fishing clubs and art classes. Our drama group performs at festivals. It's not always easy because they lead chaotic lives - they can be hard to manage and don't necessarily turn up on time, but maybe it's a bit like actors everywhere!

7. When did you last see love in action? I see it every day here at the Mission. Downstairs are 250 families queuing for help and every one of them will have been greeted by our staff, will be treated with respect, courtesy and kindness.

8. You had a terrible childhood - poverty, physical and sexual abuse. How did you rise out of it? I had people who were kind to me and helped - teachers and church people, mostly. Certainly not family. The teachers told me I was intelligent and capable and totally looked after me. Fed me. To rise out of poverty you need to have a resilience, you need to be intelligent enough to learn and take opportunities and you need to have some help. I've worked with child trauma specialists and they say the worst thing is not what is done to you, but what it does to you. For boys, that can make them defensive and angry. Girls are often terrorised, they don't have a flight response. What it did to me was I lived in a constant state of terror for a long time as a child. It took me until my late 30s or 40s to recover from that. All sounds a bit maudlin doesn't it?

9. What was Christmas Day like? I love Christmas now. Love the rituals. Loved making the day special for my three sons with Santa and reindeer poo on the lawn. Because I never really had that. Christmas was always a family argument. My father would get drunk and my parents would fight. They'd both been married before and had their own children and on Christmas, they would always decide to split up. One would say they were taking their kids and the other theirs and then I was this child in the middle no one wanted. Even if we had a tree or presents, there was just this waiting for the argument to start.

10. Is that what makes you do what you do now for other children? Often the poor don't get to celebrate Christmas or birthdays because they can't afford to. People will ask me why we give kids presents - they don't need them, they'll say. But if you don't celebrate things you deprive kids of that ability to give and receive. That's why I want kids to have a present. A new present. If kids are sitting in the middle of violence or abuse and know that someone cares somewhere then you have a chance of changing their life. A present may make them feel valued somehow.

11. How did you teach your children to be compassionate? I don't think you can teach it necessarily. It's what you do. It's osmosis. My boys grew up seeing a lot - we ran a boys' home for a while and they knew what they had, and what others didn't. What surprised me at the home was kids who had rotten lives, horrific lives. But the first thing they would do if something went wrong was cry for their mums. We all intrinsically want to be in a family who love us.

12. What is greed, to you? The day after Christmas, which is so exhausting here but so exhilarating at the same time, I'll buy myself a Christmas cake and eat the lot. Totally greedy.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 26 Dec 2014 08:41:42 Processing Time: 495ms